The statement that the historical Jesus was killed by a priest named Panehesy in the fourteenth century B.C. will be greeted with varying emotions by the millions of Christians throughout the world who accept the orthodox belief that he lived, suffered and died in the first century A.D. As we shall see in the next chapter, the early Church Fathers believed that Jesus appeared twice in two different periods of time. The first appearance, which they construed as a spiritual preexistence, they state to have occurred in the form of Joshua, son of Nun, the Israelite leader who followed Moses: the second, historical appearance took place under Roman rule at the time of John the Baptist. Although I accept these two appearances, I regard the first as the historical appearance and the second as the spiritual one. However, while it is certain that his disciples have claimed that he appeared to them at this time, not a shred of evidence exists to support the orthodox view that this was the historical Jesus, while, disturbing as the thought may be, substantial evidence—from the Bible itself and the teachings of the early Church Fathers as well as Egyptian history— points to his having lived, suffered and died many centuries earlier.
Two thousand years ago, at the time Jesus is said to have lived, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. Yet no contemporary Roman record exists that can bear witness, directly or indirectly, to the physical appearance of Jesus. Even more surprising is the absence of any reference to Jesus in the writings of Jewish authors living at that time in Jerusalem or Alexandria, although we know from Talmudic writings that the Jews did know of Jesus, even if they refused to accept either that he was the Messiah (Christ) or that he was descended from the House of David.
The orthodox Christian view, based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whose earliest versions were written several decades after the events they describe, is that Jesus was born in Galilee or Judaea during the time of Herod the Great (40-4 B.C.), that his ministry began when he was 30 years of age and that his suffering and crucifixion took place three years later when Judaea had become a Roman province and Pontius Pilate was its procurator (a.d. 26-36). Subsequently, during the fourth century A.D. when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, a date was fixed for his birth, and a.d. 1 became accepted as the dawn of the Christian era.
Yet when we attempt to match the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John against the facts of history we cannot escape the implication that with the gospels themselves we are dealing with a false dawn. We find no agreement about when Jesus was born or when he was put to death. But first let us look at the established historical facts.
Pompey, the Roman general, defeated the Greek rulers of Asia Minor and Syria in 64 B.C. and made the territories into new Roman provinces. At this time Judaea was allowed to remain an independent client state under local rulers. However, in 40 B.C., the Roman Senate granted Herod the Great control over Judaea, plus Idumea to the south, Samaria and Galilee to the north, and Peraea to the east of the Jordan. Mark Antony, the Roman soldier and statesman, subsequently appointed Herod the Great (not to be confused with his son, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea at the supposed time of the Crucifixion) as governor, and three years later he became de facto king. His position was confirmed in 31 B.C. by Octavian after the latter's defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt with whom Mark Antony had fallen in love, at the naval battle of Actium. Four years later, the Senate gave the victorious Octavian the title Augustus Caesar. This was the point at which the Roman republic came to an end and the Roman Empire, encircling the Mediterranean and stretching as far north as Britain and Germany, began.
When Herod died in 4 B.C. his dominions were divided between his three sons. However, Archelaus, the son who ruled over Judaea, was deposed by the Romans in a.d. 6 and the territory came under direct Roman rule. From this time onward, Judaea was ruled by Roman procurators, of whom Pontius Pilate was the fifth, appointed during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37), Augustus's stepson, who had succeeded him.
Only two of the four gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, refer to the birth of Jesus, but their accounts do not agree. Matthew places his birth firmly in the time of Herod: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king" (Matthew 2:1). This means that he was born before 4 B.C., the date of Herod's death. Then we are told that Herod, learning that a king of the Jews—whom he saw as a rival—had been born, was troubled and "exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under" (2:16). In the meantime, Joseph, the husband of Mary, had been warned by an angel: "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word" (2:13). Joseph remained in Egypt "until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled"—a significant statement—"which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt have I called my son'" (2:15).
After the death of Herod, the angel appeared to Joseph again and said: "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life. And he arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel" (2:20-21). The implication of this account is that we are dealing with quite a short span of time as Jesus, a baby when Joseph and Mary, his mother, fled with him into Egypt, was still a "young child" when they returned to Judaea on learning of the death of Herod.
Luke, for his part, relates the birth of Jesus to that of John the Baptist, who was also born "in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea" (Luke 1:5). We are told that John's father, Zacharias, was informed by an angel: "Fear not, Zacharias . . . thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John" (1:13). The story goes on to relate that in the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy "the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused of a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary . . . And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David" (1:2627,30-32).
Here Luke goes on to tell the familiar Christmas story of the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem stable because there was no room at the inn—and contradicts both Matthew and his own earlier account by placing these events a decade after the death of Herod the Great: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David)" (2:1-4). We know from Roman sources that this event could not have taken place before a.d. 6, the year in which Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria and Judaea became a Roman province. The purpose of the census in A.D. 6, attested from other nonbibli-cal sources, was to assess the amount of tribute that the new province of Judaea would have to pay.
Up to this point we have been offered two possible dates for the birth of Jesus— before 4 B.C., the year of Herod's death, and A.D. 6, the year of the census. In the next chapter of Luke's narrative we are offered yet a third, when he describes John's baptism of Christ, which, as all four gospels record, immediately preceded the start of his mission: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea . . . Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (3:1-3) . . . "Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, 'Thou art my beloved son; in thee I am well pleased'" (3:21-22).
As Tiberius became emperor in A.D. 14, this would place the baptism of Jesus in A.D. 29. Luke then goes on to say: "And Jesus began to be about th irty years of age" (3:23) when he started his ministry. If he was about 30 in a.d. 29, he cannot have been born before the end of Herod the Great's reign in 4 B.C. or at the time of the census in a.d. 6, but during the last year before the end of the pre-Christian era. No doubt it was this account that persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to fix this year as the turning point in world history—the first year of our Lord.
Similar difficulties arise when it comes to trying to arrive at a precise date for the Crucifixion. All four gospels agree that it took place when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea (a.d. 26-36) and that the high priest of Jewish Jerusalem at the time was named Caiaphas, known from other sources as Josephus Caiaphas, who held the office from A.D. 18 until A.D. 37. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the gospels disagree about how long the ministry of Jesus lasted: Matthew, Mark and Luke favor one year, John indicates two or three years.
The majority of New Testament scholars agree that Jesus met his death around A.D. 30. If this is the case, his age at the time would have been 36 or more, if he was born toward the end of Herod the Great's rule and we allow at least two years for the Holy Family's sojourn into Egypt and for Herod to have all children up to the age of two slain; 25 if he was born at the time of the A.D. 6 census; or 31 if one accepts Luke's account of his baptism and his age at the start of his ministry.
To summarize the argument so far, on the basis of known historical facts all we can be certain about concerning the figure presented to us in the gospels as Jesus is that he lived and died between 27 B.C. when the Roman Senate appointed Octavian as the Emperor Augustus, and A.D. 37, the year of the death of Augustus's successor, Tiberius. However, if the Jesus of the gospels lived, suffered and died during the period of Roman rule over Palestine, it is curious that his name does not appear in the writings of three distinguished contemporary authors—Philo Judaeus, Justus of Tiberias and Flavius Josephus.
This absence is particularly striking in the case of the 38 works left behind by Philo Judaeus, who was born in 15 B.C. and died some two decades after the supposed date of the Crucifixion. Philo was a man of eminence and importance. His brother was the head of the Jewish community living in Alexandria, his son was married to a granddaughter of King Herod and Philo himself was chosen to head a mission to Rome to plead with Caligula, the third Roman emperor (A.D. 37-41), who believed he was divine, to withdraw an edict ordering the Jews to place the imperial image in their temple at Alexandria and worship it.
Although a Jew, Philo was also a follower of the Greek philosopher Plato and is known as the first of the neo-Platonists who tried to reconcile Greek doctrines with the revelations of the Old Testament. His works were recognized as having a close affinity with Christian ideas and many scholars have seen in him the connecting link between Greek thought and the New Testament. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that Philo's philosophy was similar to the thinking of St. Paul.
Despite his close links with Christian thought, we find only one New Testament figure mentioned in Philo's works, Pontius Pilate, but nothing about Jesus. It is a similar story with Justus of Tiberias, a place on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee mentioned frequently in the gospels. Justus wrote a history of Herod the Great. Nowhere does he refer to Jesus or Herod's order to slaughter all children under the age of two. Although his work is now lost, it was known to Photius, Bishop of Constantinople in the ninth century a.d., who confirmed the absence in it of any mention of Jesus.
No official report by Pontius Pilate about Jesus and his trial exists, although a few centuries later some writings called Acts of Pilate appeared. They included an account of Jesus of Nazareth. However, they have been proved forgeries, either by Christians who wished to confirm the historicity of their Lord or by enemies of Christianity who wished to attack the religion.
The first references to Christianity in Roman writings are found in the works of the historians Suetonius and Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger, who were friends and held posts under Roman emperors. The earliest was by Suetonius, who was born around A.D. 69, served as a secretary to Hadrian, the fourteenth emperor (a.d. 117138), and thus had access to the imperial archives. His major historical work, The Lives of the Caesars, published about a.d. 120, gave accounts of the reigns of Julius Caesar and the 11 emperors who followed him. The mention of Christ occurs in the twenty-fifth chapter where the author is discussing events in the reign of Claudius (a.d. 41-54), who had succeeded as the fourth emperor after the assassination of Caligula. Suetonius makes a brief mention of riots that took place in Rome in A.D. 49: "As the Jews, at the instigation of Chrestus, were constantly raising riots, he (Claudius) drove them out of Rome." In the light of the gospels, this is a surprisingly early date, given the slow nature of travel at the time.
Chrestus, a common name in Rome, must have been substituted for the Greek Christus because the two names were pronounced alike and Suetonius thought— wrongly—that someone called Christ was in Rome at the time, instigating the riots. These troubles in Rome were not the result of Roman oppression but of internal conflicts within the Jewish community between Jews (Christians) who believed the Messiah (Christ) had already come and Jews who believed that he was still to appear. An echo of these troubles is found in the Acts of the Apostles (18:2-3) where we read of a Jew, Aquila, and his wife, Priscilla, who, having been driven from Rome by an edict of Claudius, went to start a tentmaking business in Corinth where they met Paul. Although the work of Suetonius is the oldest Written testimony about followers of Christ in Rome, it does not refer to the historical Jesus.
In the circumstances it was a consolation to Christians to learn, once the work of Flavius Josephus had been translated from Greek into Latin, that the text included references not only to Pontius Pilate but to John the Baptist, Jesus and his brother James. Josephus, a Palestinian Jew of priestly family, was born in A.D. 37, shortly after the Crucifixion is said to have taken place. In the latter years of his life, he settled in Rome during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96), the eleventh emperor. There he wrote Antiquities of the Jews, a long historical work of 20 books that, in surviving copies, are in some cases the only source we have for details of events in Syria/Palestine during the first century of the Christian era.
In Book 18 we find an account of a war between Aretas, Arab king of Nabatea, to the south and east of the Dead Sea, and Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great. The cause of the quarrel lay in the fact that Herod Antipas, who had been married to the daughter of Aretas, sent her back to her father and took a new wife—his sister-in-law, Herodias. In the subsequent hostilities, Herod's army was destroyed. The Jews took the view that this defeat was a punishment from God for what Herod had done "against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism ..."
John the Baptist linked immersion in a flowing river to erasing sin. His baptism was a sign of divine pardon and seems to have been a substitute for the practice of offering a sacrifice in atonement for sin. It differed, however, from the baptism of Jesus.
In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying: "John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence" (Acts 1:5). In fact, according to the gospels the apostles continued to practice baptism by water of the type administered by John, but they emphasized the necessity of its being preceded by an inner conversion. Other followers of Jesus are also described as having known only the baptism of John: "And it came to pass, that . . . Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, he said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism" (Acts 19:1-3).
Therefore it seems that recognition of the Holy Spirit was the new element of early Christian baptism. Paul himself was the first to define its symbolic significance, joining the ritual to belief in the resurrected Christ. It was thus an initiation into the spiritual life with Christ: the stain of sin was not washed away by water, but by Jesus's death and belief in his resurrection. In this context it is curious that three of the gospels should give an account of Jesus being baptized by John.
Not surprisingly, John's promised forgiveness of sins made him extremely popular with the Israelites, and Herod became disturbed by the enthusiastic crowds that gathered to hear him preach: "Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause ..." This account by Josephus, while establishing John the Baptist as a historical figure, contains no reference to Jesus and provides no support for the gospel statement that John was "preparing the way" for him.
However, Josephus does provide evidence that the gospel story of Pilate sitting on his seat of judgment and, despite his wife's plea for mercy, handing Jesus over to the multitude in Jerusalem to be crucified (Matthew 27:19-23), can be regarded only as a piece of creative writing. Although a Roman garrison was stationed in Jerusalem, the governor's residence and seat of judgment was some seventy miles away in the port of Caesarea, an ancient city that had been restored and given its new name by Herod. From a.d. 6, two years alter Herod's death, it became the seat of the Roman procurators of Judaea and remained the capital of Rome and Byzantine Palestine for many centuries.
Josephus also records in Book 18 that, shortly after taking office in A.d. 26, Pilate sent troops to the Jerusalem Temple by night, carrying military standards bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius. Pilate himself remained in Caesarea, however, and, once they discovered what had happened, a band of outraged Jerusalem citizens had to make the long journey to the coast to intercede with Pilate for removal of the standards. In fact, another incident in Book 18 is the only indication from any contemporary source that Pilate ever visited Jerusalem. His arrival, according to Josephus, was prompted by a scheme to bring water to the city from the vicinity of Hebron. The Jews, who opposed the scheme because it was to be financed with money from the Temple treasury, "made a clamour against him." Eventually, when the large throng refused to disperse, Pilate set soldiers armed with daggers upon them and the soldiers "laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded." The status of Caesarea is confirmed by the story in the later Book of Acts about the rescue of Paul by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem when Jews wished to kill him. The soldiers took Paul to Caesarea (Acts 23:24) and handed him over to Felix, the new procurator, who kept him in prison for two years while the rights and wrongs of the matter were examined.
In the circumstances, the subsequent discovery that Jesus was actually mentioned in the fourth chapter of Book 18 was a source of great consolation to Christians. The text reads:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was (the) Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the Cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.
This passage was greatly valued during the Middle Ages as the only external testimony from the first century A.D. pointing to Jesus having lived at that time. Unfortunately, it has since become an embarrassment, having been exposed in the sixteenth century as a forgery, an interpolation placed in the work of Josephus by a Christian copyist or editor, frustrated by the historian's silence over the birth, suffering and death of Jesus. No mention was made of this passage until two and a quarter centuries after publication of Josephus's work. It is absent from the work of Origen (c. A.D. 185-254), a Father of the early Christian Church, whose writings covered every aspect of Christianity and who was familiar with the writings of Josephus. In his own writings, he referred to the account of John the Baptist's life and death to be found in Book 18 of Antiquities of the Jews, but made no reference whatever to Jesus, a curious omission by someone who believed in him, if Jesus was a contemporary of John the Baptist. The first person to mention this testimony was, in fact, Eusebius—another early Church Father who wrote an ecclesiastical history down to his own time—in his Demonstration of the Gospel, written about a.d. 320.
Literary criticism of the passage falls into three categories. In the first place, the clause "if it be lawful to call him a man" looks like an attempt by an orthodox Christian to remind readers that Jesus was also divine; secondly, the sentence "He was (the) Christ" is a straightforward confession of faith in Jesus as being the Jewish Messiah, but this could not be possible in the case of Josephus as Origen himself in one of his works, Against Celsius, describes the Jewish historian as "not receiving our Jesus as Christ"; and, thirdly, the reference to the resurrection of Jesus would suggest that the author believed in it. Moreover, Josephus would not have called the followers of Jesus "the tribe of Christians," for this was not how the Jews referred to them. As already noticed by the Reverend Joseph Bingham in the seventeenth century, the Jews did not refer to the followers of Christ as "Christians" but as "Nazarenes": "Nazarenes; a name of reproach given them (Christians) first by the Jews, by whom they are styled the sect of the Nazarenes, . . . both St. Jerome and Epiphanius himself observe, the Jews termed all Christians, by way of reproach, Nazarenes; ..." (Origines Ecclesiasticae; or, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, The Works of Rev. Joseph Bingham, v. I, Oxford, 1855, p. 12). For these reasons, scholars have come to the conclusion that the passage must have been interpolated by some Christian copyist or editor between the time of Origen in the third century and the time of Eusebius a century later.
There was further great excitement in 1906 when a long-forgotten medieval Slavonic (Old Russian) version of The Jewish War, another of Josephus's works, was found. The Jewish War not only predated Antiquities of the Jews by 20 years but included another reference to Jesus. He was described as the "wonder worker" and portrayed as being pressed by his followers to lead a rebellion against Rome. It was thought at first that this Russian translation must have been made from the now-lost original Aramaic text of Josephus. However, after careful examination it became clear that it derived from the Greek text and had been made around the twelfth century A.D. No traces of Semitic Aramaic idiom have been found in it, and the opening of the section about Jesus is clearly an expanded version of the interpolated testimony quoted earlier in this chapter. F. F. Bruce, the British scholar, makes the point in his book Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament: "In fact, it is as certain as anything can be in the realm of literary criticism that they were not part of what Josephus wrote at all, but had been interpolated into the Greek manuscripts from which the Old Russian translation was made."
Another mention of Jesus occurs in Book 20 of Antiquities of the Jews where Josephus relates how the Roman procurator Festus died suddenly in office around A.D. 62 and an interval of three months elapsed before the arrival in Judaea of his successor, Albinus. Then the high priest, Ananus, used this opportunity to rid himself of some of his opponents whom he
118 Christ the King accused of breaking the law, and, having assembled the sanhedrim (high court of justice), ordered them to be stoned to death. Among those executed was a man called James, who had a brother named Jesus. When the citizens complained to Albinus about this unlawful execution, he sacked Ananus and appointed Jesus as high priest in his stead. Realizing a good opportunity to enhance his argument, a later Christian copyist added "who was called Christ" to the phrase "James, the brother of Jesus."
As we saw previously, some writings called Acts of Pilate, which included an account of Jesus of Nazareth, have similarly been exposed as forgeries, produced either by Christians who wished to confirm the historicity of their Lord, or enemies of Christianity who wished to attack the religion. We therefore have the situation that, while the account of the life and execution of John the Baptist in Josephus is accepted by scholars as a description of actual historical events, there is nothing to link him with "preparing the way" for Jesus in the accepted sense, and once we remove the insertions made to the Jewish historians' texts, we have no contemporary evidence whatever about his life, suffering and death. No contemporary record, Roman or Jewish, testifies to the presence of Jesus in Palestine at the beginning of the first century A.D. Nevertheless, we do have testimonies from this period reporting the appearance of Christ, in his spiritual form, to his disciples, such as St. Paul.
This raises the question, examined in the third section of this book, of the circumstances under which seemingly false accounts of the life of Jesus came to be written and the motives that inspired them.
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